A decision up front to accommodate the return of captain Patrice Bergeron will not be the only one made by Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy on Thursday, as the team has confirmed that defenseman Urho Vaakanainen will be ready to go for their Thursday night head-to-head with the Islanders at the brand new UBS Arena.
“Vaak may go in,” Cassidy confirmed following Wednesday’s practice. “That’s a decision that we’ll mull over [Wednesday] and decide [Thursday]. He’s ready now.”
Out of action since the Kraken’s Yanni Gourde tried boarding him into 2023 behind the Boston net in a Feb. 1 meeting at TD Garden, Vaakanainen’s return leaves the Bruins with more than a few options. And with Cassidy trying to see how to best throw the 2017 first-round pick back into action given his impressive strides of late.
“His consistency is a lot better now in everything,” Cassidy said of the 29-game veteran. “Practice, his approach to playing the game, I think, before he got hurt.
“He was drafted to be a good first pass, shutdown guy with a good stick, good feet, and you hoped maybe he’d grow into his body and become more physical or what’s needed at this level. We knew he wasn’t going to be a guy who throws some checks like Charlie McAvoy, but be able to win his battles and he was starting to trend that way. He was doing a good job making plays out of our zone, defending well, positionally he was solid, then he got injured.”
The latter point has been a problem for just about every young B’s defenseman at some point in their NHL development. It happened to Jakub Zboril this year, to Bruin-turned-Kraken banger Jeremy Lauzon before him, and now Vaakanainen.
The problem within that for the Bruins here in February 2022 is that Vaakanainen’s play may hold one of the keys to the Bruins’ deadline plans. Able to play both the left and right side, there’s a number of different ways the Bruins can go this deadline should Vaakanainen continue to build on the progress he had shown prior to the injury.
On the right side, Vaakanainen can be a stabilizing presence behind second-pairing stalwart Brandon Carlo that the team has lacked for some time, and failed to properly address in the offseason following the retirement of the oft-injured Kevan Miller and Steven Kampfer’s departure to the KHL. Connor Clifton has tried to hold his own, but has struggled with consistency in 2021-22 and has in turn made that spot a revolving door for the Bruins (Zboril was looking like the team’s best bet at RD-3 prior to his season-ending torn ACL suffered back in December). Vaakanainen’s most recent run prior to the injury came in that spot, with the Finnish defender playing opposite Derek Forbort on the Black and Gold’s third pairing.
And on a crowded left side, Vaakanainen has shown an ability to mesh at the top of the Boston defensive depth chart to the left of B’s three-zone, Norris-quality minute-eater Charlie McAvoy.
“He’s a guy that could slot up with a Charlie McAvoy and play against bigger guys and defend because he can pivot and close off plays,” Cassidy acknowledged. “I’m not sure we’re going to put him right back into that role, but it’s something that we hoped for years ago, and some of those guys take time. That’s part of his game that I’ve liked.”
It’s a combo that’s worked, too.
Together for over 84 minutes of five-on-five play this season, the Vaakanainen-McAvoy pairing holds an on-ice shot advantage of 65-33. That 66.3 percent shots-for percentage is second-best on the Bruins (second to only, you guessed it, the Grzelcyk-McAvoy pairing), and the Vaakanainen-McAvoy pairing has done this despite starting less than 50 percent of their shifts in the attacking zone (compared to a 67 percent offensive-zone start percentage for Grzelcyk-McAvoy). According to NaturalStatTrick, the Vaakanainen-McAvoy pair is one of just four pairings to have a shots-for percentage of at least 60 percent and offensive-zone start less than 50 percent.
But no matter the spot, there’s no doubt that the B’s will have their eyes on Vaakanainen with another 15 games on tap before the 2022 NHL trade deadline.
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Ty Anderson is a writer and columnist for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Yell at him on Twitter: @_TyAnderson.